After seven years on the ground in London and with over 900 plays / concerts / ballets / operas under my belt, I’ve become an expert on how to get cheap tickets to shows in London. My friends ask me how I do it, especially when I’ve got tickets to something that’s sold out and juicy and they can’t find a thing. Well … I do have a few tips and tricks, and I’m more than willing to share them with everyone else. I rarely pay more than twenty pounds for a show, and apparently some people consider this shocking – how do I do it when tickets to so many shows are going for forty, fifty, even sixty quid? Well …
First tip: it’s the day of the show, you want to get cheap tickets, and what do you do? The TKTS booth in Leicester square is a great place to check (especially for shows at Sadlers’ Wells, if you can somehow manage to get back up there once you’ve made it to Leicester Square – a bit of a trick). That said, prices here tend to run around 30 for most shows, and it turns out that’s too expensive for me – but then if you ask for something in the balcony, suddenly the prices drop (it seems they don’t volunteer anything but the best seats without prompting). Save yourself the trip, though, and look at their offerings online – they change daily by around 11 AM. Even our first day we discovered …
Second tip: buy directly from the box office of the theater, where you can get tickets for even less than the TKTS booth (though not for main floor tickets). Unfortunately, running around from one theater to the next can be pretty time consuming, so you’ll want to use websites to save time. If you do this, note that it can be hard to tell if you’ve actually Googled the correct site for the theater in question. Be sure to pay attention to the content of the website: any websites you see that have lots of ads for other shows at other theaters on the side of the page are likely to be from ticket touts. There are a whole series of theaters that belong to two theater chains and are very difficult to buy tickets for directly if you’re trying to Google your way there. These chains (the Delfont Mackintosh and the Ambassadors group) together comprise the Gielgud, the Noel Coward, the Novello, the Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales, the Queen’s Theatre, Wyndham’s Theatre, the Comedy Theatre, the Donmar, Warehouse Theatre, Duke of York’s Theatre, Fortune Theatre, the Phoenix Theatre, Piccadilly Theatre, Playhouse Theatre, Savoy Theatre, and Trafalgar Studios. I’ve put the link for the groups behind those names; if you buy directly, you’ll be guaranteed a straight price and the lowest booking fees. (Need I mention – never buy from Ticketmaster unless you love paying extra for everything.)
Third tip: save yourself a pile by sitting further from the stage. This is my number one way of saving money: buy from theater’s box office or website and get tickets IN THE BALCONY. For Americans, floor seats are called “stalls” in England; balcony seats (sometimes in a “grand tier” or a “second tier”) will almost always cost less than stall seats. TKTS will sometimes have these seats for sale, but not always. For the Royal Opera House and the London Coliseum, these seats are real money savers – sometimes more than eighty pounds less than stalls seats! Usually you’ll still have clear sitelines. My only word of advice: the top balcony in the Palace Theatre, where Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is playing, is WRETCHED. Pay more or miss half the show – cheap tickets to Priscilla are a poor value. Um, also, the side stalls anywhere in the Royal Opera House are always a crapshoot, with anywhere from half to two thirds of the stage hidden. (Fortunately their website has a little feature to show you exactly the view from where you’re sitting, so you can at least be warned, and if you’re looking at paying 6 quid for the Bolshoi, you’d better expect to not be getting much.)
Fourth tip: Lastminute.com. While they irritate me a lot at times, these guys can really save you a bundle, although you’ll save the most if you book a month or more in advance. Sometimes they don’t really offer deals at all, especially, say, for Hairspray: for that play, you’ll likely save more closer in if you book through SeeTickets. I don’t use general ticket consolidators, but LastMinute can be really great and will usually equal the price of day shows at TKTS, only without the hassle of having to go to the booth in person and then truck back to the theater.
Fifth tip: buy in advance for popular shows. Missed Othello at the Donmar? Sad about getting shut out of King Lear? Hot shows go fast and you had better pay attention to when the tickets go on sale so you can be first in line. I bought my Lear tickets four months in advance and could have sold them for four times what I paid for them. Sometimes my friends think I’m bizarre for planning so far in advance, but I’m the one who went to see Masque of the Red Death and they’re the ones wishing they could get tickets even for, oh, say, APRIL. Buying in advance will give you more price flexibility than buying the day of and will give you the freedom of not paying some horrible marked up price from a tout – even though you’re paying retail, it’s still only retail and not any more.
Sixth tip: right, so you are now desperate to see a show and it’s sold out. Suck it up and go to the box office, get your butt in line, and wait for returns. Americans would never think of doing this, but in London, well, there are people like me who buy tickets four months in advance … and get colds so dire they can’t get out of bed. Those forty pound apiece tickets? I’d actually like to get my money back for them, so I call the ticket and tell them to resell them for me. My loss, your gain. Maybe. Be aware you may only have the choice of a fifty or sixty pound seat when you’re doing this, and bring the cash to pay for it. Also have backup plans as there may be more people in line than there are returns available. And if you see a great review for a show early in the run, buy tickets right away; a small venue like the Soho Theatre can easily sell out within hours of a good review in The Metro.
Seventh tip: get a large group together and get a bulk discount. I know, for example, at the Old Vic, that a group booking can get you something like a 50% savings on tickets. I don’t have nine friends that can do the same thing at the same time, but you might.
Eighth tip: standing “seats.” This works for the Royal Opera House and the Donmar, which both hold out seats for standing for sale the day of show. though I’m not sure where else. I personally have done standing once or twice and won’t be doing it again; a three hour opera will really take your taste for this kind of theatrical experience.
Ninth tip (another one for sold out shows): be persistent. Hit the website again and again in the days before the show, and call the theater about every hour day of show and ask if they’ve had returns yet. I get shows this way for every show I want to see. Day of show, the Royal Opera House releases about sixty five seats when the box office opens, and you can buy them online (some of them for six quid, a damn fine deal for one of the world’s best ballet companies); the Donmar holds, I believe, ten seats for day of show sales but you can only get them in person. The National also holds a few seats for day of show at ten pounds each, also only available in person. This is how we got to see Coram Boy, and, I tell you, it was worth being a little late for work.
Tenth tip: see a show early. Previews are a budget conscious theater-goers friend, and often times it’s the first two weeks of a long run the theater will be working hardest to fill seats (and selling them on LastMinute). The Lyric Hammersmith (really not that far from the center!) sells tickets for the preview week at nine quid each for every show in the house – if they hadn’t, I would have never managed to see Alan Cumming in The Bacchae.
Eleventh tip: the Travellex £12 series at the National Theatre. There is really no better theater deal in town. Find out what is going to be on in the series, and just book your damned tickets as soon as they go on sale. If you ultimately can’t use them – I mean, you’re out TEN POUNDS. Just buy them. Buy them now. (Did I mention how great Major Barbara is? Well, so I heard from The West End Whingers, and, well, even if they’re wrong, it was ONLY TEN POUNDS. But I bought tickets anyway just based on their review, because they are usually spot on with the good stuff.)
Twelfth tip: become a friend of the theater. This is often not useful for out of towners, but my membership at Sadlers’ Wells has saved me piles (two free tickets plus a discount – in addition to their usual “buy two or more shows and save” discount), and my membership at The Donmar was the only way I could have ever made it into Othello. You’ll also get special deals in the mail (or email) that aren’t available to the general public, plus it’s a good way to support the arts. If you’re a Londoner, I recommend you do this and put your theater loving heart where your wallet is. After all, you’ve saved all this money – don’t you want to give it back to the people who do so much to make your free time a pleasure?
Thirteenth tip: try going any night but Friday and Saturday. I’m sorry, that’s when EVERYONE wants to see a show and is willing to pay for the privilege. Make plans for Monday through Thursday – more shows come up on TKTS, better prices are available through LastMinute, more people go, “God, I just can’t manage going out and going back to work tomorrow!” and return their tickets, and some theaters just flat out do differential pricing. I spend Fridays and Saturdays at the movies or hanging out with my friends and cram my shows in on weeknights; it’s not as glamorous as going out to the theater on a Friday, but then again if I’m forking out for eight shows a month, I can’t afford to see them only on weekends. And, truth be told, after seeing two shows already, I’m in need of a slightly quieter evening!
Fourteenth tip (new for 2009): I have to add that I’ve had a couple of theatrical miracles thanks to being on the Donmar’s Twitter feed (5 pound tickets to A Doll’s House) and the Ambassador Theatre Group’s email list (5 pound tickets to La Cage Aux Folles, this hits it as my best theater deal of the year). I’d surely subscribe to the Ambassador’s list – they manage so many theaters that you’ll likely get value out of it at least once or twice a year (plus they don’t email you too much, though most of their “deals” are 25 quid “best seats” that aren’t either deals or even “best” as I’ve ranted before).
Fifteenth tip (new for 2011): keep your eyes peeled for those ever important promotional codes. A really good place to find them is the Metro, though some other newspapers (like the Evening Standard) will also offer them. I recently found a website, Theatre Monkey, that has a good list of current codes for both theater and dance – a really helpful resource if you’re not able to collect a copy of the Metro every morning to see if some good deal has come up. And the Bargain Theatre website is also really good for deals, which they also broadcast through a Twitter feed ( @bargaintheatre ).
Sixteenth tip (new for 2013 but not really new): why not try some of the “fringe” theater spaces? Some of the best theater in London is happening at the Union Theatre, the Southwark Playhouse (or will be when they’ve moved into their new space), and the Young Vic, and there’s no doubt you will get a fine value for money for most shows at the (not really fringe) Menier Chocolate Factory and the Royal Court. And these are only some of the many wonderful venues available across London – there’s also the Almeida, the Arcola, the Finborough, the Landor Pub Theater, the Gatehouse … the list of great, affordable venues doing shows with top quality talent at bargain basement prices goes on and on. We really are spoiled for choice in London – so do yourself a favor, read some of the theater blogs, and look away from the West End now and then – you’ll be surprised at how much good stuff never makes it to a giant theater.
Seventeenth tip: Monday morning £10 ticket sales. For the Donmar, these are each Monday at 10 AM for shows that week: for the Royal Court, there are some ticket sales for their Monday £10 shows at 9AM the Monday of the show (both upstairs and downstairs), which is especially helpful for sold-out shows.
A final tip: for a show that’s going to run a long time, be patient. A lot of shows will run in London for a year or more, and just because you couldn’t afford to go for your birthday doesn’t mean you can’t get tickets four months later at TKTS or LastMinute. I’ve seen it for Spamalot and it will happen for Hairspray: after time, ticket prices will become more flexible, though this may occur around the time the original fabulous cast members head back to Hollywood/New York/their vacation home in the Riviera. TKTS provides a pretty good barometer on a daily basis of how well a show is selling, so use it as your guide as to whether or not you’ll be able to find price flexibility. If you haven’t seen it on the board for two weeks (and they’re actually selling it there), you will have to wait if you want to get it for less. (FYI, if you want to see Billy Elliot, just give up and buy balcony seats – that sucker never goes on sale. Over a month of watching it only came up ONCE on TKTS. I don’t personally recommend the show, but if you’re hot to go, just buck up and fork over the dough – and remember, balcony seats will run you £35, and since it’s what the market will bear … you’ll have to pay the piper … or try getting a group rate instead.)
Tags: cheap theatre tickets, Donmar Warehouse, LastMinute.com, london cheap theatre tickets, Lyric Hammersmith, National Theatre, promo codes, Royal Opera House, sadler's wells, TKTS booth, Travellex £12 series